I first met Cristina back in 2002 on the Chowhound boards. I'll be the first one to admit I was a bit weary when she started answering some of my posts. You see, I'd been the moderator of a rather large e-list on Yahoogroups called MCATS , devoted to Maine Coon Cats. I'd inherited the list in 1998 when it had less than 200 members, though it has since grown to 1,900+. Being a list wrangler you learn a lot of things about people. That they will, for instance, say and do things on-line that they would never consider saying or doing in person. That the truth gets stretched an awful lot, and that some people pass themselves off as something or somebody they aren't.
If nothing else, I learned to be cautious when dealing with internet connections. Then in 2004 Cristina made a quick trip north of the border that happened to coincide with a Chowhound BBQ. Finally, we were each able to put a face with the screen name and discover that we were both pretty much exactly what we said we were, which is to say, safe, sane, likable and pretty damn cute! Over the course of the last couple of years we've gotten to know each other better and I am please and delighted to call her my friend. So when, at the beginning of the summe,r Cristina asked if I had time to come on down to Guadalajara, I started looking for the dates.
One of the best things about actually knowing someone who lives full-time in a foreign country, and, as in Cristina's case, has for a long time, is that they know where all the good stuff is. Not just in terms of food, but in terms of daily life. It gives you the chance to get out of the tourist groove and see a side of a city most tourist don't. Not that they wouldn't want to, there is always that faction of the tourist crowd that does want to get off the beaten track and experience a place for what it is, not what it wants you to think it is. I certainly would not have seen the tap dancing or ballet folklorico practices that went on daily across the street from Cristina's house, nor would I have seen the danzon club having their usual Sunday evening get dance jam on a local plaza.
No sooner had I landed and gotten settled in to Cristina's spare bedroom than we were out the door looking for a cab. We were going to hear an acapella group, Contrapunto, at the Teatro Degollado, one of many old colonial buidlings in the Centro Historico. We arrived to discover we could not enter the intimate, lower level concert hall because there were no lights. No one seemed terribly concerned about the delay. It was dusk, the weather was pleasant. Guests used the time to chat with friends, stroll the small side plaza on which the entrance lies and not get too stressed out about the late start. The electricity was eventually restored and the concernt go underway. Even though the concert was publicized, it's most likely I would not have found out about it had I been a tourist staying at a tourist hotel. Chances are pretty good I also would have missed Los Altenos, a taqueria in the Chapalita colonia on Avenida Tepeyac, which is where we ended up after the concert.
It was well after 11:00 PM by the time we arrived and to say the "joint was jumping" is an understatement. It seemed like everyone in town was there from the littlest 5 year old to the senior set and everyone in between. Los Altenos is situated on a corner lot with two sides completely open to the street. Various stations line the other two stationary walls, each station specializing in a particular taco filling. The conical spit holding a massive bobbin of marinated pork that is al pastor was slowing turning and roasting, bistec and chorizo were being chopped to bits on a wooden tree stump of a cutting board and next to that was a huge flat top full of carnitas from all parts of the pig. Amazingly, this place operates on the honor system. Simply get in line and order your tacos. Pick up a beverage from the freestanding 2-door cooler and find a place to sit (or stand) to eat. You can make as many trips to the taco stations as you want until you've eaten your fill. Just keep track of the number of tacos eaten and the number of beverages you drink! Pay at the table with cash box on your way out.
We both went for the tacos al pastor and were not disappointed
In the center of the room is a metal stand into which large, industrial size containers (in official restaurantese they'd be "deep half pans" or deep half 400 pans) of salsa. Four kinds of salsa were offered, rojo, tomatillo, ranchero and avocado. The avocado was such a perfect match for the al pastor that I never made it to at least 2 of the other 3.
I love chorizo in Mexico, but not so much in the U.S. because it's too greasy and mushy. But most of the chorizo I've had in Mexico is considerably less greasy, much meatier, with great texture. I also love chorizo tacos, so I had to have at least one at Los Atenos. On it I tried the tomatillo salsa. The taco was good, the chorizo was good though somewhat sweet for my taste, the tomatillo sauce was good, but it paled in comparison to the tacos al pastor.
The station with the bistec and chorizo takes up about half of one back wall. On the big flat top there is a never ending pile of onions cut into big chunks caramelizing away. On the little ledge in front of the flat top there is a little communal ladle to be used for scooping up those onions. Do not skip the onions. Don't be shy, just grab the laddle, reach over the top and pile them on your plate. Meltingly soft, they mingle with just the right amount meat juices - a little not a lot - from the bistec and the chorizo to add some velvety meaty richness to them.
The carnitas are a whole 'nuther story. In the U.S. carnitas are just carnitas, succulent crispy pieces of pork with little differeniation made as to just exactly where on the pig they come from. Not so in Mexico. Carnitas are made from the entire pig, sold according to type and it seems everyone has a favorite carnita made from a specific part of the pig. There are various combinations of whole muscle meat -meaning loins, legs,ribs and such, and various combinations including innard, ears, snouts, tails and probably the oink.
Being an American I'm not especially partial to innards. I don't care that offal is the current darling of the trendy eating set, I don't care how lyrically Tony Bourdain or Fergus (I can see his face but I can't remember his last name) wax about the virtues of guts, they just aren't high on the hit parade of things for me to try and (very un-Diva like) I'm not to proud to admit I don't care for offal. Diva mode in overdrive :-D But like all things, whether I like it or not is really just a state of mind, so the Diva motto is "eat first, ask later". In other words, don't give the mind a chance to triumph over matter, the matter here being carnitas.
I prefer my carnitas without the gristly, gelatinous, chewy bits. Actually I like carnitas with a combination of loin, rib and shoulder. The darker meat of the shoulder and the fattiness of the ribs add great flavoring and lubrication to the drier loin parts creating a pretty succulent combo. I tried the carnitas at Los Altenos, though I'm not exactly sure what I tried. It was noisy, the guy serving the carnitas was hard to hear and my passible Spanish probably didn't help. I thought I was getting carnaza or maciza. What I got was actually pretty delicious in spite of the unidentifiable chewy bits. But still, it couldn't hold a candle to the al pastor.
We thought it would be the ultimate tourist thing to do. To take the red, double-decker hop-on/hop-off bus tour. It departs every 30 mintues from one of the streets along side the cathedral. All the tourists turned out to be Mexican. This actually turned out to be a pretty good way to get oriented to the city. Built between 1939 and 1942 Los Arcos to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Guadalajara. It's an imposing structure and the best place to get a good photo it just happened to be the top of the bus!
It is possible to climb one of the columns to an observation deck above the archs. There is an art installation and tour information in one of the anchor columns as well. Guadalajara is a city of monuments and statues and the bus also proved to be the best spot for getting a shot of the Minerva statue. A Roman goddess (Athena would be her Greek counterpart) she is in full armor complete with spear and shield and Medusa head, prepared to defend Los Arcos and her city. Why Guadalajara chose Minerva I have yet to discover, but she is impressive.
For visitors coming into to the city from Zapopan the date is always displayed in flowers at the foot of the statue. As you can see here it was 20 - Aug - 06. The statue is also the gathering point for Chivas (the soccer team) faithful to celebrate their victories. Rather fitting I think; the goddess of the battle, battles in the sports arena.
Plaza Tapatio is across the street from the Mercado Libertad and runs parallel to Las Cabanas (there should be a ~ over the "n" in Cabanas but I can't get the lap top to do it) with some of the most whimsical statuary in Guadalajara, or any major metropolitan city for that matter.
Whoever the artist, he or she had a great sense of humor and fun, and people really do use these to sit and hang out.
Las Cabanas is also known as Hospicio Cabanas as well as the Intituto Cultural Cabanas and is one of the oldest multi-functional colonial buildings in Latin America. Commissioned in 1796 by the Bishop of Guadalajara, Juan Ruiz de Cabanas, it was inaugrated in 1810 and construction completed in 1829, 6 years after the death of the Bishop. There are 23 courtyards and 106 rooms. It functioned as a church building, hospital, and orphanage, in addition to a short stint as barracks housing for the army. Interestingly, it was build as a single story building, uncommon in the era in which it was built, to accommodate the ill, infirmed and children it was designed to serve. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and houses the Instituto Cultural that provides classes and training for aspiring artists. The Ballet Folklorico de Jalisco performs there on Wednesdays at 8:30 PM.
But by far one of the most powerful reasons to visit Las Cabanas are the Jose Clement Orozco murals. 54 of them in all. Along with Diego Rivera and David Siquieros, Clemente is one of the 3 great Mexican muralist of the early 20th century. To see these murals is to understand why. Murals were used to tell the history of Mexico as well as to make political statements, and both are evident here. There is dynamic use of color, form and perspective. If you stand in one place and watch the Bishop Cabanas, and then move down the room, his gaze moves with you. The two headed horse moves as well, looking back and looking forward; as if to say, this is where we've come from, this is where we're going. The masterpiece, however, is the dome. Here Orozco painted his Man of Fire. The Man of Fire starts lying but eventually rises, and then falls back. The allegory of man continually rising and falling.
It is good to remember that computers didn't exist when Orozco painted the dome; he had to figure out how to do the engineering involved to make his Man of Fire appear to move. To do that, he cut the bottom out of a bottle and kept observing his work through the open end as he painted. Photos are discouraged in order to preserve the quality of the murals.
Jose Clemente Orozco was born in Jalisco and spent a good deal of his life in Guadalajara. Las Cabanas is presently being outfitted with extensive internal security in the way of sensors and surveillance cameras. In a few weeks it will become a permanent installation for much of Orozcos art, literally hundreds of works. A fitting and serene finals repository for the artists personal statements.
And so I experienced Guadalajara from the inside out. From the top of a bus to the depths of a local open air market. From churches to folk art and taquerias. From Tlaquepaque in the South to Zapopan in the North. I couldn't have done it as well on my own. Had I had 5 weeks I might have eventually found half of what I saw in 5 days. So a special thanks to Cristina for taking the time to show me her city and for being my friend.